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Nut Job

A chef mixes up a large aluminum tray filled with roast nuts.

A wedge of a creamy, soft cheese sits next to a handful of roast walnuts.

It’s not breaking news that cheese and roasted nuts are a culinary love match. But you should know, says Chef Arnon Oren, that the whole affair gets a lot more interesting when you introduce the pair to some spicy characters. The owner of Oren’s Kitchen catering in El Cerrito, California, Chef Oren has played around with pairing seasoned nuts and cheese, using influences from his travels and experiences in professional kitchens (including the venerable Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, and Chez Panisse in Berkeley). The result is Oren’s line of small-batch roasted nuts flavored with different herbs, spices, and oils that he created as aperitif nibbles. On their own these sophisticated little bites stoke the appetite for the main event, but thoughtfully paired with cheese and wine, Champagne, or beer, they make for a memorable tryst. Explains Oren, “I like to encourage my customers to pair flavored nuts with cheese, because they’re so versatile. It allows them to easily experiment with cheese plates without feeling intimidated.”

Plain or Fancy

Having worked at a family-owned fromagerie in France and explored cheese on several continents, Chef Oren has a broad appreciation for matching dairy flavors with other natural foods, such as nuts. He favors sweeter nuts—for example, pecans—with saltier cheeses, such as blues or cheddars, and the earthiness of walnuts and hazelnuts paired with semisoft and double/triple-crème cheeses. Fresh, tangy cheeses such as chèvre as well as stinky washed rinds go nicely with the relative neutrality of standard almonds, while rich, sweet Marcona almonds, sold fried in olive oil, complement Spanish cheeses. Pistachios, Oren notes, “are just right with lightly sweetened ricotta drizzled with honey.”

Among his line of seasoned nuts, Oren likes to pair a handful of Wild Rosemary Almonds ($6.99/4 oz) with Graskaas, a dense, seasonal Dutch Gouda by Beemster. His Smoked Paprika Pecans ($6.99/4 oz) stand up to rich, slightly tangy cheeses; Oren’s pick is Carboncino, an ash-coated “tre latti” (cow, sheep, and goat) from the Alta Langa Piemonte (avoid anything too goaty; it will overpower the delicate sweetness of the nuts). For do-it-yourselfers who want to make their own seasoned nuts, Oren advises slow roasting at a low temperature, which coaxes the maximum flavor from the ingredients. He recommends using fresh herbs during roasting for the best flavor and tasting nuts (ideally, before you buy, if you can purchase in bulk) to make sure they’re not rancid. “Nuts should always be crunchy and have a fresh aftertaste.”

WALNUTS WITH NIGELLA SEEDS AND MAPLE SYRUP

Nigella seeds are often used in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. They have a flavor similar to oregano but with a mustard-seed-like bite. Oren suggests pairing these seasoned nuts with a young Manchego, although tomme styles also work well.

Serves about 4

  • ½ pound shelled walnuts
  • 1 tablespoon nigella seeds (available at Whole Foods Market, specialty shops, and ethnic markets)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
  • ⅛ teaspoon sea salt

Heat the oven to 300°F. Toss walnuts with nigella seeds, olive oil, maple syrup, and salt. Roast on a baking sheet for 20 to 30 minutes. Be sure to shake pan and move nuts around every 10 minutes, so nuts won’t burn. Let cool for up to 1 hour. Serve with Manchego, or use both in a simple salad of arugula or mâche.

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